The car in front is driving me mad; MOTORING

You curse other drivers? It's road rage
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The Independent Culture
THE DECLINE of Western Civilisation, Part 58 - Road Rage. An AA survey in January found that nine out of 10 drivers admit to having experienced it. Last month, a Conservative MP, Cheryl Gillan, introduced a Private Member's Bill pleading for it to be tackled. Road rage, it seems, is all the rage.

In the last year keen road rage spotters will have inwardly digested the following newspaper reports: in Hendon, an elder of the United Synagogue and "leading member of Britain's Orthodox Jews", sprang from behind the wheel of his Mercedes and punched a Buddhist monk sitting at the wheel of his Nissan Micra. A woman driving a brown A-reg Ford Escort in Swindon smashed up seven parked cars in a wrecking spree before "calmly walking away". A carpet salesman from Hampshire made the error of flashing his lights at a middle-aged man in a Maestro dawdling in the fast lane on the M27 and was stabbed in the face with a screwdriver.

Someone who should be able to separate the hype from the facts is Dr David Lewis, a psychologist previously at Sussex University and now running his own consultancy specialising in stress management. Dr Lewis has travelled tens of thousands of miles with drivers wired-up to heart- and brain- wave monitors, waiting for an outburst of RR to occur. But he has some bad news.

"I've never actually seen a subject get out and thump another motorist and I'm never likely to," he says. "When we're driving along with people and monitoring their behaviour with bio-feedback equipment and video cameras, it tends to have a calming effect on them. I even did a stunt for the BBC programme Here and Now going out in a car with Vinny Jones, the footballer. We hoped he'd blow his top but he remained uncharacteristically calm and collected."

Dr Lewis does not, however, doubt the existence of the road rage phenomenon and gives three reasons why it may be on the increase. First, he believes there are too many cars competing for too little road space these days which means we grow as agitated as rats in an over-populated cage. Also, we are far more subject to the pressure of time. "In our culture, time is now seen as the main indicator of efficiency: how many rings before a phone is answered, for example," he says. "If we had tight deadlines and empty motorways, life would be a doddle, but we don't."

Second, Dr Lewis believes we have a problem with the car itself. "Cars now feel too safe, which leads to over-confidence. At medical school students are taught that stress leads to four deep-seated responses - fight, flight, freeze or sexual intercourse - come from a part of the brain that evolved long before the thinking cerebral cortex." Few people can respond to M25 tailbacks by hot-footing it into the surrounding fields or, if as is likely they are travelling alone, by copulation.

(Personally, I'm more of a freezer than a rager. While I was driving in to the office one quiet Sunday morning a few years back, an innocent cut across the bows of a Ford Transit led to retribution at the next set of red lights. The driver got out - I saw him in the rear-view mirror and froze, mute in panic. The brute came to my window and jabbed me below the eye with his forefinger. I rang the local police station and they sniggered.)

This incident serves to vindicate Dr Lewis in his third reason for RR increase. "We are all just genuinely less courteous than we used to be. Other motorists have been reduced to mere members of the enemy and the car is a weapon. The three elements together have made an explosive mixture."

Ford has now produced its own corporate video, Are we talking about you?, in an attempt to persuade us to be less aggressive behind the wheel. This suggest that culprits range further than the textbook young, short-fused male. A middle-aged woman, Yvonne, is seen sitting down describing herself as "generous" and "easy-going" and this is cut together with footage of her behind the wheel yelling classics such as, "Come on then, granddad!" and even, "Out of my fucking way!" (A research project in Surrey, incidentally, has recently been looking at PMT and its effect on driving. The news here isn't good either: 77 per cent of women say their driving skills deteriorate in the days before their period.)

Another organisation trying to do its bit to curb RR and gain some welcome publicity was Pavilion Services. Last Summer at their service station at Forton near Lancaster, on the M6, they introduced a pair of masseuses to conduct on-site stress relief. "Trained therapists" Cheryl and Susan offered free five-minute "pressure point" treatment featuring head, neck and hands massage, eye and neck exercises, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques. Altogether a healthier truck-stop pastime than Yorkie consumption.

It all went down very well until Pavilion tried to recoup some of the cost by charging a modest £3. "It didn't work," says a Pavilion spokesman. "The great British public always want something for nothing, don't they?"

Dr Lewis is not personally concerned. "I don't drive at all any more," he says cheerfully. "I came to loathe it and just won't put myself through it. I now have a driver and he never loses his temper." For those of us without drivers, he recommends the following plan of action to avoid getting raged-up.

Number One: "a sea change in mental attitude. Rage won't get you one yard further down the road," he says. "And stress will just take a toll on your health. Be cool."

Number Two: "Give yourself more time. The only thing Type A personalities hate more than being late is being early. So, don't say you'll arrive at 3.30, say between 3.20-3.40. Phone ahead if you are going to be late."

Number Three: "Keep stopping every couple of hours to prevent loss of alertness."

And if all this fails and you feel yourself about to jump from the driving seat to take some fellow traveller by the throat? Dr Lewis has a bizarre piece of advice. "Warm your dominant hand.

"When you are tense," he explains, "your hands grow clammy. That's because blood flows away from the periphery to the deep muscle structure. You can calm yourself by getting the blood back. Either simply imagine your right hand getting warmer or hold your open palm to your cheek."

Or take the train. !